Tricked and trapped: How migrant workers are getting a raw deal in the Middle East

ILO reveals how an estimated 600,000 migrant workers are tricked and trapped into forced labour across the Middle East at the first-ever tripartite regional conference on human trafficking.

News | 09 April 2013
Contact(s): Farah Dakhlallah, Regional Communication Officer, ILO Arab States,(e) (t) +961 1 752 400 ext 117 (m) +961 71 50 59 58
AMMAN (ILO News) – An ILO study has offered a rare glimpse into the hardships endured by workers from some of the world’s poorest countries while also examining the structural hurdles to protecting their rights at work in the Middle East.

The ILO will present the findings of Tricked and Trapped: Human Trafficking in the Middle East to more than 100 participants from twelve Arab countries at a regional conference in Amman on Tuesday and Wednesday (April 9-10).

The meeting is expected to further discussions on how to put international anti-trafficking commitments into practice in a region that has one of the highest concentrations of migrant workers in the world.

The report
Based on more than 650 interviews conducted over a two-year period in Jordan Lebanon, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, the study sheds light on the situation of trafficked adult workers in the Middle East, the complex processes by which they are ‘tricked and trapped’ into forced labour and sexual exploitation, and the constraints that prevent them from leaving.

It also examines the responses to human trafficking recently put in place by governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations and other stakeholders and provides regional policymakers with recommendations to help them effectively counter the phenomenon.

The Middle East hosts millions of migrant workers, who in some cases exceed the number of national workers substantially. In Qatar, for example, 94 per cent of workers are migrants, while in Saudi Arabia that figure is over 50 per cent. In Jordan and Lebanon migrants also make up a significant part of the workforce, particularly in the construction and domestic work sectors.

“Labour migration in this part of the world is unique in terms of its sheer scale and its exponential growth in recent years,” says Beate Andrees, Head of the ILO’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour. “The challenge is how to put in place safeguards in both origin and destination countries to prevent the exploitation and abuse of these workers.”

Although data is scarce, the ILO estimates that there are 600,000 forced labour victims in the Middle East.

Exploiting sponsorship
The report singles out the Kafala (sponsorship) system – which governs the lives of most migrant workers in the Mashreq and GCC countries – as “inherently problematic” because it creates an unequal power dynamic between the employer and the worker.

It points to deficits in labour law coverage that “reinforce underlying vulnerabilities of migrant workers” as well as significant gaps in national legislation that “restrict the ability of migrant workers to organize, to terminate their employment contracts and to change employers.”

It notes that the lack of inspection procedures maintains the “isolation of domestic workers in private homes” and heightens their vulnerability to exploitation. It also highlights the “real” risks of detention and deportation for workers who are coerced into sex work in the entertainment industry.

In male-dominated sectors such as construction, manufacturing, seafaring and agricultural sectors, workers are routinely deceived with respect to living and working conditions, the type of work to be performed, or even the existence of a job at all.

Glimmer of hope
The ILO report recognizes that governments, social partners and civil society actors have stepped up efforts to combat forced labour and human trafficking in recent years, particularly on the legislative, policy and service delivery fronts.

But shortcomings persist in applying laws and prosecuting and convicting perpetrators of human trafficking. The absence of the right to freedom of association in many Arab countries remains a major obstacle to workers’ ability to make their voices heard.

“Human trafficking can only be effectively tackled by addressing the systemic gaps in labour migration governance across the region,” said Frank Hagemann, ILO Deputy Regional Director for the Arab States.

Overhaul the system
Reforming the Kafala system would significantly improve labour migration governance in this regard.

The report proposes empowering ministries of labour to oversee recruitment processes, to handle complaints by migrants and employers, and to verify allegations of mistreatment and respond accordingly as a viable alternative to the Kafala.

It highlights the need to extend legal coverage and equal rights to all categories of workers, revise standard employment contracts, end wage discrimination, improve recruitment systems, strengthen legislative frameworks, and enhance labour inspection.

Government authorities have an important role to play in affording victims of trafficking access to justice and compensation, as do trade unions in advocating for workers’ rights, and employer’s organizations in helping to ensure that recruitment practices are free from debt bondage, excessive recruitment fees and other forms of deception and coercion.